Abductive Reasoning

Chris Mooney

Scores of “nonfiction” books, pseudo-documentaries, movies, and television programs notwithstanding, there is no good evidence to support claims that scores of Americans are regularly being kidnapped from their beds at night by alien beings. That’s the conclusion anyone applying a rigorous scientific methodology to such claims must reach—and it’s the conclusion of Harvard researcher Susan Clancy, who has studied alleged “abductees” in detail. But in her humane and funny memoir Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard University Press, 2005), Clancy doesn’t simply pose as another debunker. Discounting the factual validity of abduction claims is, for her, just the first step in a deeper and much more meaningful inquiry—the attempt to understand how it’s possible for ordinary people to actually believe something so outlandish in the first place. It’s here that Clancy not only demystifies a baffling cultural phenomenon, but also delivers insights into human nature itself.

Clancy got into studying this subject in an unexpected way. She started out researching whether it’s possible to entirely repress traumatic memories of childhood sexual abuse, and then “recover” those memories later through hypnosis—or alternatively, whether hypnosis itself might be generating a raft of false memories. The area was a “minefield” at the time, with widespread (and undocumented) allegations of satanic ritual abuse and sex-rings at day care centers proliferating in the national media. “Nursery schools were being shut down and teachers imprisoned because, after lengthy and suggestive questioning, children were describing bizarre episodes of abuse, some involving flying clowns and broomsticks and the killing of large animals,” writes Clancy, in her characteristically witty way.

As this passage suggests, Clancy and her Harvard mentors were firmly in the “skeptic” camp regarding such claims. But after Clancy published research examining whether women claiming recovered memories of sexual abuse were more susceptible to creating false memories in the lab, she was promptly labeled a “friend of pedophiles everywhere.” In such an incredibly politicized atmosphere, Clancy soon hit upon a “safer” way of testing false memory creation: Studying people whose memories couldn’t possibly reflect events that actually happened, as a kind of control group. Enter the alien abductees.

Crank and media calls aside, Clancy’s ad seeking research subjects—”Have you been abducted by aliens?” it read—netted some real people who suspected they had been. One “abductee” got Clancy in with a tight-knit group of fellow believers, opening the door for her to visit with them at a resort and conduct a large number of interviews. Hanging out with the wildly colorful abductees—one of whom paints quasi-pornographic alien pictures, another of whom is a “channeler”—she also met Budd Hopkins, a popular writer (and hypnosis practitioner) who has promoted dubious abduction stories. Clancy was not impressed by the crowd. “It was clear that Occam’s Razor, the principle of parsimony that underlies all scientific theory making, did not come naturally to these people,” she editorializes—sentiments she aired to the abductees one night after two drinks, only to find them completely ignored.

Still, Clancy was struck by how normal her subjects were—except for that business about the spaceships, the sexual molestation, the hybrid babies, and so forth. And so she begins to weave her explanation of how otherwise sane people could come to accept abduction accounts, and even believe that they themselves have been spirited away.

In Clancy’s account, a number of separate factors help set the stage for a transition into full-fledged abductee-hood. The first is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, the widely prevalent but little understood condition in which REM sleep—the phase in which most dreaming occurs—simply malfunctions. Our bodies are paralyzed while we undergo REM sleep, and for good reason (lest we act out our dreams and injure ourselves). But in some small number of cases we can actually start to wake up before paralysis wears off, and yet still remain in a dreaming state.

What results is hallucination, often of some extremely scary stuff. In sleep paralysis you wake up in bed, feel paralyzed, and tend to sense a terrifying presence in your room. Sometimes you see something; sometimes you hear noises or even feel electrical shocks throughout your body. From alien abductee accounts, it is quite clear that many of these individuals have not only experienced sleep paralysis, but hallucinated terrifying alien visitations.

But sleep paralysis, alone, cannot fully explain how to grow an ordinary everyday American into an “abductee.” Clancy herself has experienced sleep paralysis (so has this reviewer), but neither of us claim that aliens dropped by our beds one night for a little light probing. The next step in the initiation into abductee-hood comes when the individual who has experienced a bout of sleep paralysis goes searching for an explanation of what happened—an internally satisfying way of rationalizing a shocking experience.

At this point the abductee-in-training may be rescued by someone who can explain sleep paralysis. Or, he or she may instead fall prey to the “cultural script” of alien abduction, a narrative that is extremely prevalent in the national media and consciousness, and constantly being reinforced. In a helpful chapter, Clancy delves into explaining where this script comes from, showing that mass abduction claims have always come after media treatments of alleged abductions, whether in movies, pseudo-documentaries, or “nonfiction” books. It’s a case study in the power of suggestion at work.

Although “flying saucer” tales go back much farther, alien abduction as an American cultural phenomenon appears to have begun in the 1960s, thanks to the popular TV series The Outer Limits, which in turn appears to have influenced “abductees” Betty and Barney Hill (who made their claims in 1964). The Hills’ story became a “media sensation,” touching off a wave of copycat abductee accounts. From there, it was a short step to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Whitley Streiber’s bestseller Communion, and any number of pseudo-documentaries on the Sci-Fi Channel. In an amusing passage, Clancy notes that thanks to the cultural diffusion of the alien abduction narrative, even her graduate students in Nicaragua (where she’s currently a visiting professor at the Central American Institute for Business Administration) know that aliens snatch humans from their beds in order to experiment and “make babies with you.”

But sleep paralysis and the abduction “script” don’t adequately explain how so many Americans can have such wacky beliefs. Clancy has to go further, because abductees themselves do. In their quest to understand what has befallen them—and often already suspecting alien abduction—many go out and get themselves hypnotized, whereupon they proceed to “remember” much more detail about their alleged visitors.

The trouble is, hypnosis isn’t a reliable way of recovering memories. Rather, it’s a great way of getting false memories planted by a suggestive hypnotist or therapist, who may already be a believer in alien abduction and asking leading questions. These false memories seem extraordinarily real; indeed, Clancy and colleagues have found that in recalling their traumatic “experiences,” alien abductees feel powerful emotions not unlike those of war veterans.

And it’s not just hypnosis that prompts false abduction claims. It’s also the people being hypnotized. Clancy’s research shows that alleged alien abductees are more likely than the general population to be fantasy prone; i.e., they have “fertile imaginations, day-dream a lot, and report very rich visual imagery.” Such characteristics make abductees unusually susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Meanwhile, and relatedly, abductees are also more prone to create false memories to begin with. Shown a list of words—”sour,” “candy,” “sugar,” “bitter”—they were more likely than other subjects to falsely remember that a related word (“sweet”) had also been on the list.

By this point in Abducted, Clancy has woven together an impressive array of interlocking factors—sleep paralysis, the cultural script of alien abduction, hypnosis, fantasy proneness, a proclivity to create false memories—that have considerable explanatory power when it comes to accounting for the phenomenon of alien “abduction” in modern America. But she still isn’t satisfied. For as she notes in a crucial passage,

…this analysis is still insufficient for an understanding of the phenomenon. As the abductees themselves would say, “If you’re telling me it didn’t happen to me, that I made it up, why in God’s name would I want to?”

Why indeed? After all, being abducted by aliens doesn’t sound like a very pleasant experience. First, you’re attacked by monsters in your bedroom at night. You’re terrified as they pin you down and stick needles in your abdomen, or painfully extract semen from your testes, or stick metal tubes up your nose and puncture your brain cavity. Not to mention the molestation. At one point, albeit briefly, Clancy entertains the notion that the abductees who make all this stuff up might be closet masochists.

But she quickly dispenses with it, because it turns out there’s a very obvious reason why abductees would want to make all this stuff up. They’re getting something very profound out of it. It’s not just media attention; it’s spiritual payoff. Some subjects even told Clancy that being abducted was the best thing that had ever happened in their lives; as one puts it:

The journey has enabled me to discover my place in the universe. I had felt abandoned, reduced to nothing but a sperm sample. Yet today I feel a tremendous expansiveness. In my total aloneness, I have discovered a oneness with the beings.

What are abductees getting from their experiences? Why, human meaning, of course. The sense that there are alien beings out there who, despite violating any number of ethical rules governing human subject experimentation, nevertheless somehow have our best interests at heart. Beings who are wiser, have greater powers, are beneficent caretakers over the human race, and help a select few of us understand how we all fit into the big cosmic picture. Beings who are, in short, our modern day version of angels. As Clancy summarizes, in what is surely the most important passage in the book:

The abductees taught me that people go through life trying on belief systems for size. Some of these belief systems speak to powerful emotional needs that have little to do with science—the need to feel less alone in the world, the desire to have special powers or abilities, the longing to know that there is something out there, something more important than you that’s watching over you. Belief in alien abduction is not just bad science. It’s not just an explanation for misfortune and a way to avoid taking responsibility for personal problems. For many people, belief in alien abductions gratifies spiritual hungers. It reassures them about their place in the universe and their own significance.

Or as Clancy finishes the book: “Being abducted by aliens may be a baptism into the new religion of our technological age.”

Unlike many a scientist, Clancy is funny and knows how to write. She also knows when to let the “abductees” speak for themselves, so that we can understand who they really are. At one moment, for instance, she lets us overhear a cell phone conversation in which an outraged “abductee” is denouncing Clancy for suggesting that sleep paralysis may explain his experience: “I wasn’t sleeping. I was taken. I was violated, ripped apart—literally, figuratively, metaphorically, whatever you want to call it. Does she know what that’s like? Fuck her! I’m out of here!” Clancy also lets us understand how sadly, pathetically human the abductees are, as in the case of one individual who described “the anal probe that fell out, was analyzed by a lab, and declared to be a hemorrhoid because ‘they were afraid of the truth.’”

And yet despite these profound virtues, Susan Clancy’s Abducted seems hardly fated to enjoy the literary success of credulous pro-alien abduction bestsellers, like Whitley Streiber’s Communion. I have become a cheerleader for the book in my own small way, and have begun to track its fate on Amazon.com; but so far, despite my recommendations to “buy, buy, buy,” it does not seem to have entered the top 1,000 books overall. Clancy was lucky enough to win a favorable review in The New York Times, but the review appeared two months before the book itself did—a cruel trick to play on an author from the standpoint of sales. Of course, Clancy has also been published by a university press: Harvard’s books are very scholarly and credible, but university presses rarely place the same emphasis on sales that more commercial publishing houses do.

The fact that Abducted isn’t apparently being more widely read is tragic, because it is a truly rare book, one that simultaneously succeeds as science, as personal narrative, and as social commentary. As skeptics, as defenders of science, and hopefully as champions of nonfiction publishing, we have a duty to spread the word about Abducted—to make our society more aware of the explanation for the alien abduction phenomenon, but also to make it more aware of Susan Clancy.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.